Between skyrocketing gas prices, clogged highways, and budget cuts at Federal, Provincial and Municipal levels right across the country, the constant problem of getting more people to different places faster and cheaper has begun to finally gain some attention. Balancing these needs with the growing environmental concerns voiced across the country, and not just by Green Party members, and there is an odd predicament for transportation experts to ponder. The solution, surprisingly, is something that has been phased out as we became car & highway hungry consumers: trains & streetcars.
Canada is criss-crossed with hundreds of rails, courtesy of the rush for westward expansion during our country’s infancy. The major rail lines, CN and CP, off-loaded a lot of their infrastructure while gas was cheap and highways were expanding, eager to make themselves efficient and cost effective. As gas prices have skyrocketed, many of these rail-lines were resurrected by small companies, and in Alberta, dozens were re-acquired by CN. British Columbia is seeing the re-opening of the E&N Railway, the White Pass is preparing to re-open in the Yukon,(1) and the Beachburg Subdivision, running from Pembroke, ON through Pontiac, QC, and into Ottawa is hoping to start operations in November.(2)
The talk of building a Calgary-Edmonton High-Speed Rail line continues to pick up steam, as a quick way to connect two very important cities in a booming province. London, ON is still trying to push the construction or update of parts of the Windsor-Quebec City High Speed Rail Project, which has already been turned down by short-sighted Ontario & Quebec provincial governments despite it having been shown to be profitable between Quebec & Toronto.(3) The push for this kind of interoperability is huge on the ground level, but in many cases the governments aren’t willing to entertain the idea because of initial costs that would have to be laid down during a time of austerity.
That being said, even cash-strapped municipalities are examining high-speed rail as a way to manage local tranportation, with a new LRT in Ottawa set to join its O-train. Light rails and trams already run in Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. Proposals are in place to expand municipal usage to Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Mississuaga-Brampton in Ontario; Quebec City in Quebec; Vancouver and Victoria in BC; and Winnipeg in Manitoba.
There are many other cities that could greatly benefit from examining this kind of system, even smaller locations like Timmins, ON, which could benefit from having a quick-shot line from the Timmins Square (or even the Walmart box-store area) in the west end through downtown, past South Porcupine & Porcupine, and even out to developing mine sites on the East End of the city. This kind of a development would take one of the poorest transit systems in the province and elevate it to something convenient, useful, and affordable to its residents. Other small-cities looking to improve or start local transit would do well to consider beginning with a light-rail system, especially given its greater ROI over standard bussing.
The resurrection of rail and streetcar infrastructure is an amazing endeavour. Fuelled by rising gas prices, an increased population, and clogged roadways, the rebirth of the country’s extensive rail network is something to be celebrated. With rail lines being updated to use new rail technology, we’re also seeing an environmental push aiding in its redevelopment. The forging of a railway across Canada helped unite the country in the past, its return will do wonders to bring back a sense of community once again. We need to leverage this growth in rail to feed into local transit plans, business expansion, residential growth, and environmental sustainability. To the rail of the past, I say, welcome to the future.
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